Saturday, December 02, 2006

Rockaliser Baby

I enjoy cooking. I've always seen good food as one of life's pleasures. Eat what you like, what floats your boat, and in moderation, using good quality ingredients, you will live as long and as healthily (but probably much more happily) as anyone else. Food should be a pleasure, not a regimen. It's a physical experience and you should concentrate on getting the most out of it.

People assume single men survive on takeaways, TV dinners and toast. Now I'll admit toast plays a part in my diet but I can't remember the last time I bought a takeaway and the idea of eating something brewed up in an industrial vat somewhere, cook-chilled, given a poncy title and some fancy packaging and stuck on the shelf of Waitrose or M & S at £4.99 has never appealed. More and more I'm cooking food from rawer and rawer ingredients. I made ice-cream the other day (without an ice-cream maker) and it was pretty good. Good enough to try it on vistors I reckon.

Cooking for yourself is not only satisfying, it's cost effective as well. £4.50 of that £4.99 will be eaten up by packaging, preparation, distribution and other overheads but mostly it's good, juicy, shareholder-pleasing profit (not much left there for the actual ingredients). In the case of the slightly more democratic Waitrose who operate on a different financial basis to most other retailers it's a little different, but they are still not averse to making a buck on the back of some pretentious advertising and overblown prose on the back of box about how special their food is.

Most of the time I can knock something up without recourse to a recipe. Stews, casseroles, stir-fries don't really need recipes anyway. All you need to know are the basic rules and you can tinker around with the ingredients. Roasts are a doddle. Try to learn how different cuts or joints of meat react to different cooking styles and use this knowledge. If you do need to follow a recipe, understand the rules and the terminology and you generally won't go far wrong. Recipes on packaging are usually pretty reliable as well. The manufacturers want you to see their product in the best possible circumstances so they're unlikley to give you a duff recipe on the packet.

In the last few years I've started bothering about puddings and other sweet things. I'd never really thought much about them. When out for a meal with friends I've always gone straight for the coffee when friends have been cooing over the dessert menu. Most restaurants seem to lose interest when it comes to dessert and resort to stuff like banoffee pie, sticky toffee pudding or death by chocolate or some other nutcase name to disguise some sickly concoction.

Round about this time of year, I start looking out for an interesting pudding for the family for Christmas. You've got to admit, Christmas pudding is pretty hopeless. Your poor mum willl buy, or prepare something the size of a football and most people will go through the motions of eating a tiny sliver, declaring it delicious and then avoiding it until they leave. My uncle Tam used to fry Christmas pudding and eat it for breakfast and I've got to say, that was about the tastiest way I've ever seen it presented.

So, the other day I saw this recipe for Cardamom Chocolate Truffles. Looks like an interesting treat to go with the after-dinner coffees I thought. It's a bit exotic but simple to prepare. I could go to Thorntons and buy their stuff but making your own would be much more satisfying and fun. I made a test batch this week. It took much longer than suggested and the results are disappointing. Three tablespoons of cardamom pods is way too much. Cream to chocolate proportions are wrong, and "thick and fluffy" is not a consistency I recognise. There should be 300ml of cream to 300g of chocolate. One tbsp. of cardamom pods is plenty. Have you ever bitten into a cardomom pod when somebody's left one in the rice? You can't taste anything else for the rest of the meal. In this case, you're only using them to infuse the cream but the taste from thre tablespoons is still overpowering.

I get pissed off with bad recipes. Especially when you spend nearly eight quid on ingredients. I had to buy extra cream to get the mix to a consistency that was beatable. The cardamom flavour is, as you might expect, overpowering, although it has done my sinuses no end of good. Still they look OK I suppose. What do you think?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

In Remembrance

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae, May 1915

Monday, October 30, 2006

My Pink Half of the Drainpipe

There's been a lot written recently about green taxes so I don't see why I shouldn't say my piece as well.

The government and the two main opposition parties in have both been posturing and pontificating about how they plan to deal with the issue that is variously called Climate Change or Global Warming or The Greenhouse Effect. They seem to be mostly in agreement that the way to tackle this thorny problem is to levy taxes.

I don't think anyone really disagrees that the effect we're having on the world is generally a negative one. If you have finite resources of a commodity and you continue to use that resource faster than it can renew itself, then pretty soon it's going to run out. When that resource is part of the very fibre of the planet you're living on then the effect is that much worse. How long those resources might last is a whole different question but the fact thay they are finite is not in dispute. The world we live in is completely self-contained. The only fuel we draw in is sunlight. The rest of the world is a combination of gases, elements and minerals (pardon my chemistry or geology, there may be more to it than that but I'm sure you get my meaning) and we appear to be drawing more resources out of the ground and pumping it into the atmosphere faster than the ground can re-absorb it.

So, any initiative to try to deal with that can only be A Good Thing. But, and this is my whinge, why the fuck is the most imaginative way to deal with this problem to tax people? Your average British voter is pretty pissed off with the current government and their role as custodians of public money. Every week they come up with another idea to see how they can get more money out of us. Usually this involves telling us it's our own bloody fault and they have to do this for our own good. We're told we're all too fat so they're going to tax fatty foods. We're all binge-drinking alcoholics so they're going to increase the tax on booze. We're all stupid so more money is needed for education. We're all sick so more money is needed for health provision. We're all defrauding the welfare so we're going to have to have ID cards (and pay to have them).

The problem here is that people like to see a return on their money and the reality is that we never fucking do. If the government wants to take more of our money then we want to see the results of that investment. If booze is going to cost more to act as a disincentive to buy and drink it, then we want to see fewer drunks in the street on a Saturday night - fat chance!

And this is why Green Taxes are so appealing to the government, regardless of the party in power. There is no way of measuring the results. There will be no instant payoff. Richmond Council trebling the price of parking permits is not going to stop a hurricane hitting Bermuda or the icecaps melting. Whatever we do and whatever we pay in tax will have absolutely no effect at all on the planet. On the radio this morning, a presenter on a proper BBC news station seriously suggested that the taxes raised would "halt global warming" as if this was something that would be fixed next month. No, no, no. Green taxes, whilst on the one hand being unpopular will be seen by the politicians as a silver bullet to levy taxes at will, to shore up whatever other bit of financial mismanagement is going on elsewhere in the incumbent goverment. And because there will be no tangible result in the state of affairs, they can just keep on taking the money and telling us we're "doing our bit" to save the world. They'll just blame the Chinese or Indians or some other country's pollution when all those countries are really trying to do is improve their cut of global cash that is swilling around and to lead as profligate existence as we have done in the past. Well fuck right off, it's a scam and you know it Mr Blair.

If you really want people to buy into this idea then offer to ringfence the money raised by Green Taxes. Go on. Put some transparency in your taxation for once. Don't tell us you're charging us to fix one problem and then use the money to bankroll wars that you think will put you in the history books. Promise to spend the money raised on windfarms. Bugger those people who think they're ugly. There's a million places to put them on this island, the most windswept fucking place in the whole EU. Use it to subsidise putting wind turbines on houses and factories. Put it into a public transport system that for once in my 43 year lifetime (44 next week) might actually fucking work and be slightly better than just about bearable to use. State clearly and unambiguously how much money is raised and then put it back into the system in a real and visible manner. It still won't make a fucking jot of difference to the planet but people might actually accept that you're serious about this and not just flailing around as usual trying to find politically and/or morally acceptable ways to get money out of people to continue to shore up your financial mismanagement of the state.

Friday, October 06, 2006

We Were Wrong

McVities have removed the plain chocolate Hobnob from their product lineup. The PCH is a unique product occupying a niche in the biscuit market that is not filled by any other teatime treat. At a push I suspect PCH fans will resort to the plain uncoated Hobnob but I suspect few, if any, would consider the hazelnut, caramel or orange alternatives which are nouveau arrivistes lacking the low-end punch the PCH connoisseur craves.

I think McVities have acquired a somewhat scattergun approach of late to their products. They seem to want to stick any old topping, coating or filling on a biscuit and see if it’ll fly in the marketplace. These new products may briefly grasp the attention of the public but few I doubt have the integrity and qualities of the PCH that will ensure their long-term survival in the hurly-burly world of biscuits. They are tinkering dangerously with their range. Their marketing budget to get these new products recognised must be horrific and to what end? Most of them will have died away in a few years time to be replaced with some other flash-in-the-pan, gimcrack biscuit with equally transient credentials.

McVities! Sort your act out!

NB If you're an American, I'm talking about cookies, not biscuits.

NBB If, on the off-chance you read the Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down website (highly recommended), then I wrote the original email to Nicey and have not plagiarised this piece.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

girl with a one-track mind

Newspapers rely on a number of things to survive. Sales, over the counter and through advertising, is an obvious one. Then you have the standard of journalism which relies on quality of writing, content and exclusivity. A lot of what journalists write will have been researched and they may quote anonymous sources. Anonymous contributors, the journalist hopes, will give their writing a whiff of authenticity, will make the reader think that the person they're reading has access to information not available to others. Your average hack will fiercely protect his or her sources claiming their anonymity is essential. Anonymity also means that although their writing might imply their informer is someone fairly senior, they could just as easily be a doorman with a grudge.

So, when a newspaper chooses to out someone and expose their identity (or more often than not not, their tits on some faraway beach), they're treading a delicate path. They're about to attack an area which they would, in their own profession, consider untouchable. You have to ask if they're doing it in the public interest or whether they're doing it to increase sales or perhaps it's out of spite or to undermine a competitor. Whatever their reasons, and public interest is rarely the top priority, before you revel in the salaciousness of the moment, you should question why they're doing it.

The identity of the writer of the blog and subsequent book, girl with a one-track mind was recently revealed in a national (British) newspaper. The newspaper had serialised the book a few weeks earlier. The writer was very keen to remain anonymous, Her writing is brutally and refreshingly honest, involving fairly intimate details about her sex life. A lot of people read the blog with a sense of relief, finding they were not alone in the way they thought or behaved. Some people may have flinched at the detail, but few I suspect, doubted its honesty.

So what possible benefit tracking down and outing the writer has been lost on me. It could only be an attempt to puff up the insecurity or flagging reputation of the journalist in question. It might have got them a few extra sales but hardly the kind of investigative journalism that will win prizes. This is low-level stuff, it ain't Woodward and Bernstein. The target of the piece has initially not fared so well. She has had to question whether she can continue writing, whether commercially or just for pleasure. She has had to face her family and friends who now know her most intimate thoughts and what goes through her mind on day-to-day basis - we all have opinions and thoughts but sometimes we like to keep some of them to ourselves. Her day job and career has been effectively ruined by the innuendo laden style in which the outing article was written.

Newspapers love to tell us what an important job they're doing but sometimes one suspects they're sometimes more interested in making the news rather than just reporting it. Having a large multi-national corporation behind you means makes it easy to go after the little man, who rarely has the time or money to engage in a fight over journalistic integrity. The target of the piece will just have to pick herself up, dust herself down, hope the story dies down pretty quickly and try and get on with her life.

In the case of girl with a one-track mind, I think she's got the chutzpah to come through this. Her writing is engaging, funny and she comes across as someone you'd like to meet. Her book is selling well. She has had plenty of support through her website. She may not be able to write anonymously again, but I'm sure she has plenty to offer using her true identity. I wish her well. I'd like to see whose career has progressed further in 10 years time - the journalist or the girl - my money's on the girl.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Cool Britannia

Single mother. It's an emotive phrase isn't it. It tends to conjure up an image of a woman, probably young, who has either by accident or design, got herself knocked up and is now working the state for whatever benefits she can get. Her kids will be out of control, bereft of the essential guidance we're told can only be attained through a two-parent home life. She will never have worked, will have had limited education and her only prospects involve having more kids by more transient fathers who will disappear as quickly as they arrive. It's a depressing image but one the government seems keen to have us believe is the norm.

And what happens when this single mother finds herself in this position. Not only is she villified by the media, across the whole political spectrum, but she's told her kids will be unhinged tearaways likely to descend into crime, drugs and a hapless future. Grim isn't it, and easy to agree with.

Single mothers are poorly represented and pretty much ignored. However hard they try to bring up their kids properly they're still likely to be stigmatised by the image I describe. And the kids know this. Once they're of an age to understand their circumstances they are able to understand the rhetoric touted by the media and they're pretty much doomed. As soon as the kid realises the country sees them as a lost cause they will just as likely give up trying and accept that nobody has much hope or expectation for them. The descent begins. Up until then they were probably perfectly happy. Kids often don't know the apparent desperation of their situation until somebody who thinks they know better tells them how hopeless their life is.

What confuses me is what this villification of this section of society achieves. It doesn't encourage the mothers and it sure as hell doesn't energise the kids to rise above it. It beats them down and then proceeds to give a good kicking when they're down. No wonder they fail. Kids that get into trouble will be reported as coming from a single parent family, and automatically, by implication and the power of the phrase 'single parent' we've decided what kind of kid we're dealing with here - yet often there is little knowledge of the exact circumstances of that single parent. Simply being from that environment is enough to explain how hopeless you've become. As a kid you believe it yourself even though you didn't know anything was wrong until they mentioned it. You were just trying to get on with your life like all the other kids.

There are a lot of good single mothers out there who don't see living off benefits as a career choice. They work. They raise good balanced kids who go on to be productive members of society. But this is not because of any help they receive. It is in spite of it. People find themselves as single parents even though that was never their intention when they had their kids. Their relationship has broken down and now they have to deal with things as best they can. And invariably many of them do, even though the state and media are after them. A lot of kids benefit from one parent actually having the nerve to detach themselves from a corrosive, violent or otherwise upleasant two-parent environment which really was doing them harm.

And the worst thing is, we believe the crap we're told yet we all probably know a single mother, but of course the one we know is the exception. The one we know brings her kids up properly. They're smartly turned out. They're polite and work hard at school, but you know what. That single parent you know is, for statistical reasons, as far as the media and state are concerned exactly the same as the person I described in the first paragraph.

I guess categorising people as losers sells newspapers and produces nice government statistics yet it doesn't really help anyone.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Humanoid Boogie

The other evening I was on the Heathrow Express travelling back from a week long business trip to Romania. Work has kept me busy these last few weeks and although that's not the only reason I've not been updating the blog it is certainly a contributory factor. Anyway, there I was, quietly reading Uncle Vanya in preparation for the book group meeting next weekend. I looked up, to stare pensively into the distance as one does occasionally when trying to absorb Russian literature. My eye caught that of a young lady who had been looking in my direction. She quickly averted her glaze. Almost immediately I found her attractive. Black jeans, pointy boots, nice top, big brown eyes and long, thick, dark, shiny hair. Physically, she was, I guess you'd say, larger than average but it was all in perfect proportion and just so very right. I went back to my play and she went back to her mobile 'phone conversations, obviously catching up with people as it appeared she had also been away for a while. I could not help overhearing her half of the brief conversations which were engaging, considerate and jolly and only confirmed to me that she was as appealing in personality as I found her to be in appearance.

For the next fiften minutes we continued to exchange eye contact. Sometimes I looked up just to see her look away, and other times she caught me doing the same thing. It wasn't some weirdo stalker-type staring thing. I'm sure it was mutual. Somehow, it just felt right.

The train pulled into Paddington and we both got up to leave our section of the carriage. I fould myself helping her to remove her large case from the luggage rack. Smiles were exchanged and then we found ourselves walking almost side-by-side up the platform into the melee of people on the main concourse waiting for their trains. I was heading for the taxi rank and I felt sure, that with such a large case she was going in the same direction.

I never talk to strangers. But now, as I weaved through the crowd I said to myself "I'm going to talk to this girl". All I had to do was think of the right opening gambit that might lead to a conversation. Nothing too witty or that might lead her to think I was in the habit of eyeing and chatting up strangers on a train, but nothing too cheesy either. Soon I would have to tell her I worked in IT and on the scale of cheesiness, that's right up there with the Stinking Bishop. In addition, her body language suggested a certain shyness and I did not want to appear too forward.

I knw my moment would come as I walked down the corridor that leads out to the taxi rank There would be the inevitable twenty minute wait and somehow things would develop. I exited the corridor to find a phalanx of taxis waiting, no queue, and thirty seconds later I was aboard and pulling out of the station.

The moment had been lost. This has been bugging me all weekend. I'm 43, single, but enough of an optimist to still believe that someone is out there for me. In those last twenty minutes I had concluded this was a moment not to be lost. Opportunities like this do not arise very often and if they do, I rarely feel so compelled to want to act on them but here I am idly wondering all weekend what might have been.

I suppose the best I can hope for is that somewhere out there, is a pointy-booted, black-jeaned, dark-haired young lady who also thinks, perhaps on that Friday evening in West London, a moment was also lost. Which is why I guess, we all go on.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Rusty (Champion Thrust)

I got the bike. It had only done 1370 miles and straight after buying it I added 260 miles driving it back from Cornwall (his other home). It's got a radio...not sure why but there you go....and an electric screen which you can use like a modest fairing or, when in the up position, like a complete windbreak/deflector shield. And it handles - for a big bugger it's fantastically chuckable into the twisty stuff. another bonus is I will no longer have to faff around bungying my laptop and gym gear on the back as it's got all that hard luggage.

I also sold my other bike. Sad to see it go and even sadder when the guy 'phoned me one hour later to say it wouldn't start. I drove out to him and found it was only that he hadn't realised you needed to pull the clutch in to start it. More worrying was that he had already decided that it was too big for him and would I consider buying it straight back at a reduced price. This might have been possible if he hadn't dropped it sometime since I'd sold it to him and it now had some nasty scrapes on the previously unmarked bodywork. I'd looked after that bike - I'd had it from new for over six years so to see it in such reduced circumstances was rather saddening. I really hope he sells it on soon and it finds the home and owner it deserves.

This post is somewhat bike-centric, as was the last so another post imminent.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Piggy Bank Love

This is my bike. I like it. It is a good bike. There have been others. Some were good. Some were not so good. But this one is good. Some people dislike it's quirky styling. I have kind of got used to it. It's quick, reliable, easy to understand, easy to ride and has never really let me down.

Bikers are regular people. On the whole, they're pretty good people. You'll never see a bike broken down by the side of the road for long. Another biker will stop to help. That's what we do. We wave to each other as we pass on the road. In my office there's Jeff who buys a new BMW every other year and pootles around Scandinavia with his wife on the back for his holidays. There's Pete who's had the same old tourer for years. He hardly rides it but when he does there's a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face that tells you that he is a chap who knows how to enjoy himself. There's Richard, one of scariest looking blokes you'll ever see, but dead nice, who has been seen on the M3 going at 100mph in a blizzard on his battered ZX9R. He is surgically attached to his bike and is immune to all weather conditions. There's me. I ride the 90 mile round trip to work as much as I can during the Summer and not so much in the Winter. I ride because I enjoy it. I don't ride to prove I can go out in all weathers. Rain is fine. Cold isn't so bad with the right clothing. But wind - I don't much like that - that's what will keep the bike in the garage and get me in the car instead. I arrive at work with a smile on my face and I leave work with a smile on my face looking forward to the ride home.

But sometimes, other bikes come along that turn your head. You think to yourself, one day I will own a bike like THAT one. Such a bike has just been offered to me. This is it - lovely isn't it? I've wanted one of these for a long time. It's more comfortable than my other bike and I'm getting to the stage where I'd prefer to sit up on my bike as opposed to lie down on it. I need a bit of extra padding for my bony arse. I don't need an engine that revs up to 12,500 rpm and loosens my fillings any more. I'm getting a little tired of strapping my laptop to the back with bungees. This is the quality someone of my discerning maturity demands.

It's been offered to me at a very good price. It's only done 1500 miles in three and a half years and belongs to a millionaire living on the Isle of Man. This bike has the perfect history that says it is the best example of it's kind that is likely to pass under my radar. He wants to sell it for the right price because he's a reasonable man. Could you ask for a better set of reasons to buy something you have coveted for so long? No? Nor can I.

But right now I have to save ALL my money so I can pay to fix up my flat. It is a project I got underway at the start of the year and I had resigned myself to saving every penny I can to have enough money to do what I want to do. Now I have to decide whether to pass this one one and hope another bike like this will come along next year.

What has my life come to that I am even prioritising the ownership of granite worktops and bathroom fittings instead of owning an item of real beauty that will make me smile every day I see it. Godammit, it's even got a radio and heated grips. What fancy toilet seat can ever give you that much comfort and entertainment?

Je suis désolée.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Hello Mabel

In celebration of blog post number 10, a list of 10 things I like about London.....

1. Drinking London Pride beer in The Shooting Star then going across the road to the Dil Chad for a curry.
2. The Hoover Factory on the Great West Road.
3. London Open House weekend where you can visit buildings not normally accessible to Joe Public.
4. Museums and art galleries are mostly free - although you really should make a donation.
5. Listening to Danny Baker on BBC London.
6. The river. Nobody in London ever calls it The Thames.
7. You always see at least one minor celeb. in Crouch End (where I live) on Saturday afternoon. Today I saw John Simm, recent lead in Life on Mars in Woolworths.
8. Everything or anyone of any significance that can move or be moved will come to London if it wants to get noticed.
9. Londoners, whilst being belligerent, self-centred, indifferent to visitors and downright unhelpful will also be tolerant, broad-minded, liberal and somewhat inebriated.
10. Wherever you're from in the world, you'll find someone else in London who shares your beliefs, speaks your language and will help you find your way.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Quiet Talks and Summer Walks

Governments like to define people, it helps them create rafts of meaningless statistics that help them make some piece of policy or legislation more convincing - they tell us 80% of the population want a better service from government departments which is why they've increased our taxes. No. The tax increase aspect of the deal was conveniently omitted from the original question. We said we wanted a bettter service, we didn't say we wanted a tax increase.

Companies like to categorise people in order to create demographics which will "help them to help you". They tell us 80% of their customers said they wanted a better phone service. So they sacked 400 people and moved the entire operation to Bangalore. No. You didn't ask the same 80% if they wanted 400 people sacked - that was not the question. Your customers said they wanted service, not redundancies. Oh, and it saved you 85 million quid a year as well, so it's a win-win for everyone eh?

As individuals we operate on a microscale of the above. We make any number of judgements on a person often just by looking at them or hearing them make a few abstract comments.

Once you're out of your teenage years, after those desperate early years struggling to fit in, you fight to make your mark. Desperate to conform as a youngster you now realise conformity will never set you apart from the crowd. You need your own little Unique Selling Point.

This USP can take many forms. A discreet tattoo. A striking, some say eye-jarring approach to fashion perhaps. Some will head off to the quack doctors and return to proudly announce a food intolerance that has made them a surly and cantankerous git for the last 20 years. Others will search their past to winkle out some insignificant event in their childhood and use this to account for their failings in later life.

Others are more easily defined perhaps. A physical feature may can make a person yet the same characteristic may blight another person and make them bitter with their lot in life. Whatever it is we're all in some category somewhere.

About six billion people in the world? Are you male or female dear reader? Female - ok, that's got rid of three billion. British? That's now got you down to one in 30 million. Caucasian? Yes - ok so that's probably taken another 2 or 3 million off the stats. More than one sibling? Wow, that's a good one - let's make a wild guess and say that now makes you one of 6 million. So after four aspects of your life you have absolutely no control over, you are now in a club that represents something like 0.1% of the world's population. Pretty exclusive eh? Now extrapolate a little further with some of the lifestyle choices I mention above and you could be one of only a few hundred people like you in the whole damn world.

I flatter myself I like to try and be different occasionally. I stuck to flared jeans well into the 80s. I think free further education for all is a defining mark of an enlightened society, yet I personally didn't get a whiff of it having failed every exam ever put in front of me and leaving full time education at 16. I like to sing along to The Red Army Choir's rendition of La Marseillaise when I'm drunk. There are probably only one or two of us in the whole wide world. No wonder I'm 43 and single.

But finally, tomorrow, I'm joining a crowd with an increasing membership. I've resisted it for a long time. It just wasn't for me. I don't envy or resent people already in that club. I just didn't see many benefits in it for me. Other people swear by it. It has changed their life they tell me. They can't imagine how they survived before they joined this global clique.

Yes, tomorrow I get my first mobile telephone.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?

I'm a consumer. We all are. I think I'm fairly discerning. I like to study what I'm buying, compare it with the competition, make a judgement, and then, I tend to live with my decision. All a retailer has to do is give me a decent product, sell it at a fair price, that turns you an honest profit and gives me the product I want and I'll put my hand in my pocket and everyone's happy. This seems to me a simple way of doing business that makes everyone go home with a result. What pisses me off though, is I no longer believe any of the bull that comes with selling me something.

Everything that is sold these days has to have marketing literature that is riddled with superlatives.

Let's try a few examples. Go into any chain restaurant.....not something I do very often but sometimes, especially where children are involved, you can't avoid it. You're presented with a huge laminated menu with razor-sharp edges and pictures of the food for the hard-of-reading. Let's say I want a steak. The menu will not simply say "10oz sirloin" which is all you really need to know when buying a steak - the size and the cut. Perhaps some information about the provenance and lifestyle of the beast would help but really there's not much more I can think of. No no no. It will say something like "A juicy and tender 325g of prime sirloin, lovingly prepared by our expert chef, coooked to perfection on our flaming grill, served with a sauce of your choice made to our own secret recipe." Right, so your chef's an expert, that's a relief, cos you look like the kind of place where the staff look like one day, they might aspire to the minimum wage. Your steak is juicy and tender? Well, that's the least I fucking expect. Do you have other steaks on the menu that don't reach this criteria because that's the only goddamn reason I can think why you feel it necessary to point out the fact for this one? Cooked to perfection? So am I normally to expect it will cooked to imperfection - do I need to be told it will be cooked correctly? And I'll bet the sauce will be made to a recipe that is more familiar to a scientist than a cook, and prepared in a vat the size of the hold of the Titanic somewhere in a factory in Skelmersdale or some other hellhole.

Why do credit cards all have to be platinum? Premium? Ultra? Fish? Egg? If you ask for the regular credit card you'll be told that the Premium, Platinum, Ultra Fish/Egg credit card is actually the entry-level card. Platinum, despite it's implications of exclusivety and elitism is, in fact, the bottom of the heap. No credit card has ever given me anything more than the ability to buy things and therefore not have to carry around substantial amounts of cash on the hip. That's all I want it to do. But the advertisers think that having their card will somehow give you more. Hell, some of the advertising implies the card is buying the stuff for you - well if you're stupid enough to believe that then you're going to get a shock on the 1st of every month when they start asking you to pay them for all this stuff they were privileged enough to buy for you.

Hyperbole, superlatives and a stunning array of smoke and mirrors now seem to be the norm when deciding to buy the simplest of goods or services. It's all bollocks.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Noises for the Leg

Here are a few pictures I took when I did The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu back in 1998. I spent about 5 weeks travelling through Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia with an overland group run by Dragoman. It's a great way to travel if you have a limited amount of time, don't mind the backpacker culture, but need independent transport so you cover plenty of ground. They'll take you off the beaten track, get you a good local guide where needed, and brush up your camp cooking skills when it's needed.

We were a fairly small group. Eight travellers and two group leaders from Dragoman. We all kept in touch for a while afterwards - when you travel as a group for a reasonable amount of time, even someone with my dubious social skills tends to fit in after a while. In terms of bangs per buck, we did plenty and I'd have to say it was the most complete holiday I've ever taken.

I'm always surprised at how few people have travelled anywhere in South America. It's a stunning place, the people are great and there's always something to look forward to even it's just the spectacular scenery that confronts you round every corner. The cities are a bit full-on but once you're out of them you can detach yourself and really forget the other world you inhabit. People tend to assume South America is defined by Rio during Carnival but there is so much more to it than that.

Standing above Machu Picchu at 7 in the morning watching the sun burn off the clouds as they raced up the mountainside and passed over us will be a memory that will stay with me for a lifetime. I'd be back there tomorrow if I didn't have to fix the plumbing.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Labio Dental Fricative

Yes, I know, talking about reality TV is pretty boring but I'm just finding my way here on my nascent little blog and just trying to catch my stride.

Somebody once asked me who I'd least like to find in my local boozer one evening. My answer at the time was a bunch of Premiership footballers out for their Christmas party. I have a new answer to that the question now. It would have to be any or all of the contestants from The Apprentice. The premise of the show is that a top British businessman puts a group of young hopefuls through their paces with the intention of offering one of them gainful employment at the end. The businessman in question is the notoriously testy Sir Alan Sugar. The young hopefuls, despite being described as the cream of young corporate British talent, appear to have all the business acumen of the average Woolworths' trainee. One of them is quite possibly mad. Described as an HR Manager (redundant) she has the interpersonal skills of Pol Pot but without the charm and cosiness.

Each week Sir Alan has to despatch one of the fourteen hopefuls. By the denouement of each show they have been whittled down to that week's shortlist of three. I'm sure he's already decided that at least ten of them were utterly unsuitable for any sort of work that involved anything more challenging than the use of a pencil sharpener. Given that's it's unlikely that all the ones who might potentially have some aptitude will make the shortlist, he has a pretty easy job of winding them up, and then, using fantastically fractured and irrational logic, firing one who he'd almost certainly never planned to employ in the first place anyway. He carefully leaves the loonies in the pack to bewilder and frighten the other survivors and so maintain interest in the show.

I once heard reality TV described as "voyeuristic, manipulative and degrading, but it has it's bad points as well." This show has got all those qualities in shedloads. I kinda like it.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Man with the Trembly Nose

My 5th post and my second obituary - not what I had intended for this blog but the great Ivor Cutler has to be mentioned.

It's easy to say there are no true eccentrics left and we're all homogenised and derivative but Ivor Cutler was a true eccentric. Possibly the greatest exponent of the art in fact. His addictively lilting Scots brogue, half singing, half reciting absurd poetry usually backed by a wheezing harmonium doesn't sound appealing but it thoroughly infested your mind. Lyrically scatalogical he drew you into a strange world mixing bizarre subjects in incongruous surroundings.

Justifiably championed by The Beatles, Bonzo Dog, John Peel, Andy Kershaw and many others he influenced many contemporary musicians and performers.

Try listening to some of his work here - I suggest Questionnaire as an introduction - if that doesn't draw you in to his world then I guess it's just not your thing.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Canyons of Your Mind

2006 is the year to finally fix up my flat. All other capital expenditure has been put on hold and I have forced myself to peruse kitchen catalogues, bathroom suites, flooring products and other related products. I have engaged an artisan, Tony, who will carry out the work once I've decided what I want to do.

Interior design has never been a subject close to my heart. I am sufficiently aware of my own limitations in these matters to know that any bold design statement I make will be hideous and a subject of humour to friends and family once I am out of earshot. I know what doesn't work. The previous residents bequeathed me a bathroom in black and pink. I won't be going in that direction.

Yesterday morning I was in a bathroom showroom in Enfield. I'm relieved to see there no longer appears to be a fashion for coloured bathroom suites - bogs and basins were all lined up like sperm in a Woody Allen film, all gleamy and sparkling white. There were refreshingly few gold bath taps on display. Given that I've never seen one in anyone's house, I'm surprised by the apparent popularity of those baths with little jets and nozzles that give you a bath-time fluffing. The fashion in taps these days seems to be for the monobloc design where you get a single up-down left-right lever to modulate the temperature and force of the water ejected. I thought that style was confined to public toilets but it now seems to be permeating the domestic arena. Still, that's Enfield for you. Next week, kitchens. Watch this space.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Jollity Farm

Tony Blair has said in an interview that he will answer to God for taking us into war in Iraq. The sheer hypocrisy, insensitivity and downright brass neck of this observation by him defies belief. He has consistently insisted that subsequent terrorist attacks around the world would have happened regardless of the war in Iraq and has preferred to blame them on religious fundamentalists and zealots. Yet apparently it is acceptable for him to invoke the word of his God as being the authority he expects will judge his actions. That must be cold comfort for the people who might not share his religious convictions who have lost family members on both sides. The man who has played a major part in their loss does not believe he ultimately has to answer to his peers, or the electorate, but solely to his imaginary friend.

Some of the most despicable despots have used religion to justify their actions. I am not about to place T. Blair in the category of despicable despot but he would be wise to show a little more sensitivity to those who do not share his belief in fairy stories and have to cope with their loss without the delusions that he enjoys.

In the UK, a country where the predomininant religion would best be described as fundamentalist agnostic and whose government has said in the past "We don't do God", I can only hope his party, if it has any nerve, will try to accelerate his exit. At least then perhaps we can hope to have a country run by someone who can make a decision based on events and circumstances and not the claptrap that goes on his head when he shuts the reality out.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Rhinocratic Oaths

I drive to work most days. A 90 mile round trip from North London to a featureless business park just outside Reading. This morning, with a hint of frost in the air I saw two cars get wiped out completely. One was just behind me as we left the M4 at junction 10, took the bend too quickly, lost it and went down the embankment, and the other car following got into a panic on seeing the previous accident and spun hitting the barrier on both sides of the road. I watched all this carnage taking place in my rear view mirror. 100 yards further on there was a four car pile up on the other side of the road and another 400 yards down the A329 were four more cars that had scattered various component parts about the place. It's not unusual to see accidents at this exact spot - every few months someone does something similar. My car got into a slide there a few years back but fortunately I didn't lose it completely and have taken that turning 10mph slower ever since. Life is too sweet.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Tubas in the Moonlight

You think you've got something to say until you're actually confronted with a box saying "Type here" and then you think "Shit, what do I do now?" However, nobody's looking so I'll start by mentioning Linda Smith who died yesterday of ovarian cancer. Seems like she was on Radio 4 only yesterday ranting about something you never thought could be significant, or indeed, a subject for comedy, but she always seemed able, not only to find the comedy in it, but also to have some significant point about why it particularly irked her. Her observations stuck with you, and you realised that despite the apparent triviality of the topic, it was worth getting pissed off about. The News Quiz and Just a Minute will fill her shoes but they'll do well to find an original like her.